viv_albertineCLOTHES, CLOTHES, CLOTHES. MUSIC, MUSIC, MUSIC. BOYS, BOYS, BOYS by Viv Albertine (Faber & Faber, 2014)

I started this autobiography expecting a fun but frivolous account of the punk era. It is all that and more.

Viv Albertine was at the heart of the heady period in the late 1970s when the British establishment were running scared. The Slits were one of the many bands that were inspired by the so-called ‘filfth and fury’ of The Sex Pistols; four feisty females who were not about to let a lack of musical expertise hold them back.

Albertine was the guitarist in that band’s early years. I regret to say that I never did see them play live but I treasure the memory of first hearing them on a John Peel session – four tracks recorded in September 1977 that captured their ramshackle brilliance.

The book contains plenty of fascinating insights into the ordinary world that preceded and followed the extraordinary explosion of rebel yells.

She is full of revealing, often hilarious, anecdotes. I particularly liked this description of a 1972 David Bowie concert at Imperial College in South Kensington :
“Halfway through the show, Bowie climbed into the audience. I don’t know where he picked that up from, no one I’d seen did that. None of us got it though, we didn’t realise you were supposed to lift him up and carry him along, everyone parted politely, thought he was off to the bog or something, and he fell on the floor, it was embarrassing.”

She tells of her devotion to other artists of the late 60s and early 70s like Marc Bolan, Captain Beefheart, The Kinks and The Rolling Stones but it is her insights into the Punk years that make the ‘music’ part of the book so essential.

Make no mistake, this is a real insider’s account. The Clash’s Mick Jones was her lover, Sid Vicious was a close friend and she mixed in the same circles as Malcolm McClaren, Vivienne Westwood, Johnny Thunders and Keith Levine. “Punk was the only time I fitted in” she writes.

Viv Albertine as MILF

Viv Albertine as MILF

But the musical journey is only part of her life story. She says that one of the reasons for writing the book was to show to other women that you can fuck up and still be a success on your own terms. The title is a taunt from her mother who said that she had a three-track mind. This is accepted as an accurate summary of her main life interests but defining her a superficial drifter was well wide of the mark.

Viv Albertine may not have aspired to conventional (i.e. capitalist) notions of fame and fortune but she is someone who has constantly strived to express herself with integrity firstly through music but also in the mediums of the visual arts, film and, now, in words. She identifies with Buddy Holly’s reaction to his mother’s suggestion that he should finish his exams so he’d have something to fall back on; Holly’s response was “Ma, I ain’t fallin’ back”.

Compromise is not something that comes easily to her. From feral child to independently minded adult she has never been the type to follow sensible advice or bow to convention. A for instance: “I know everyone says never sleep with a guy the first time you meet him, but I did. And I married him. So bollocks to that”.

This is the portrait of woman who wants to be noticed (“I try to shock in all areas of my life”) but she also confesses to being inclined to introversion and admits : “Life is a series of excruciating tests for me”.

The self-deprecating tone is ever-present from the opening line: “Anyone who writes an autobiography is either a twat or broke. I’m a bit of both”. Yet at the same time, Viv Albertine is honest (often painfully so) in describing her abusive father, serious health issues, marital breakdown and, more recently, her determination to establish herself as a solo performer. “You have to be selfish to be an artist”, she writes, and her experiences serve as living proof of Samuel Beckett’s aphorism: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better”.

Ultimately, she recognises the truth in some graffiti written on a toilet wall of a London pub : “Behind every successful woman is a man who tried to stop her”.  Her manager told her that unless she found a ghost writer, this book would be a failure. Its success stands as a ‘fuck you’ to him and others with fixed ideas of a woman’s place.

Viva Viv!

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